It's Randy again. At home, this time. Lenny's eyes go dead. His lips go flat and tight. He stares at nothing. He says nothing. This is a warning. An anecdote alert.
When he passes Auerbach, when he closes in on Victory Number 1,000, his real goal, the reporters who come to ask about his past will know this warning, find themselves adrift in his silence, waiting for answers that won't come.
Somewhere in the silence are two little girls and a boy about to turn four, playing in a small wooden playhouse their father has built for them outside their tenement in Brooklyn. It's October 1941. There's a birthday cake, which the young father has already baked for their baby brother, who'll turn one year old in just two days.
Somewhere in the silence there's the father upstairs in the apartment bathroom doubled in half with pain, blood pulsing from an ulcer, and then an ambulance rushing to the tenement, the children running out of their playhouse to see him carried away. And when he comes back, he'll be in a box, and all the world will turn black—black suits, black robes, black curtains as a backdrop to the open coffin in their living room, tall lamps at either end. Lenny and his five-year-old sister, Connie, walk up to the box while the adults are in the kitchen preparing for the wake. They don't understand. They're talking to their father, combing his hair, touching his cheek, when their mother and aunt burst in, screaming, grabbing their hands, rushing them to the bathroom soap.
But the little boy won't cry. All through the long wake, sitting in the arms of a nun he barely knows, aching to break free and run, terrified to break free and run, begging inside for all of this to end. His mom, relatives, neighbors, everyone telling the boy, "You're the man of the house now. Everyone's depending on you." He can't cry. He can't let anyone down.
Somewhere in the silence are memories of uncles and aunts who won't invite him to their homes, who walk past him on the street without a glance, children who sneer at him and call him half-breed. Memories of a mother whirling on anyone who stares, fixing strangers with her gray eyes, What are you looking at? Yes, they're all my children! Running for the brown soap when she hears her own children breathe a word about color, rubbing the soap in their mouths so hard their gums throb.
A 25-year-old widow in a tenement with four children between the ages of one and five, grit and love her only skills. Four kids in one bedroom, two of them in each single bed, hugging each other for warmth because the heat from the coal stove doesn't reach that far. Henrietta in the other bedroom—just her, her and the Catholic church and a cord from an old steam iron for discipline, against the world. She has a font of holy water installed just inside the front door for her and the children to bless themselves when they enter. And crucifixes, pictures of saints in each room, a little altar on her dresser with a candle that flickers an eerie shadow of Christ's statue upon the wall. She turns white with terror at every thunderstorm, drops her children to their knees to recite the rosary, tells them God—boom!—is registering his disappointment with the world.
And why shouldn't he? The whole world's at war, the Germans and Brits and Japanese and Russians with their mortars and tanks in Europe, Africa and Asia; the Pythons, the Stompers, the Chaplains, the El Quintos and Nits with their knives and zip guns in Bed-Stuy. Lenny reaches under the bed and peels another piece of linoleum off the floor to cover the hole in his shoe. He shoves his rosary into his pocket and his fear into his bowels, and he goes out into that world.
Somewhere in the silence there are memories of people shot in front of him, of gangs that he looks up and finds himself surrounded by, of times he escapes because they turn on a friend instead and rip his face open from eyes to chin, or because he happens to have a cousin in the gang, or because he just runs for it, block after block until his chest feels as if it will explode. "I couldn't have sympathy," he recalls. "I couldn't trust. I couldn't get involved with people because then I'd have to feel. What scared me so much was seeing no one going out of their way to help my mother and family after my father died. Seeing people look down their noses at us. You realize that no one really cares. So how do you get through? You start building the wall. You never let anyone know what's inside. Il sounds awful now to say I'd never cry."
He goes to work at age seven. Delivering groceries in a cart, scrubbing floors, washing windows, by puberty running the vegetable department in the local supermarket. The man of the house. Bringing home dimes and quarters, celery and carrots for the family's all-but-meatless stew. Chaperoning his older sister at parties, watching her so closely when she dances that she gets the creeps and won't go to the parties again. He knocks on a door one day with groceries, is stunned into silence when Jackie Robinson answers. Lenny's hero, the man who doesn't flinch at the slurs, doesn't blink at the bastards. There was still hope in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the late 1940s, still Robinsons and Campanellas strolling the streets, neighbors who say, "It's late, you need to get home," Boys Clubs and Police Athletic Leagues and CYOs that throw open their doors to children. And a strong young man named Father Tom Mannion of Holy Rosary who sets his feet between the Wilkens family and the abyss, who brings them clothes and encouragement, who notices Lenny's remarkable resolve and takes him under his wing.